Thursday, June 28, 2007

Did Tolkien Complete the Silmarillion?

Yesterday while walking the cats I had a strange thought: what if Tolkien did, in fact, complete the Silmarillion? As part of the preparation for my Marquette paper, I've been mulling over the need to periodically revisit the conventional wisdom in a field (e.g., Tolkien studies) in order to see if it needs recasting in light of further evidence. Certainly a number of the standard beliefs about THE HOBBIT dating from the time of Carpenter's biography in the late 1970s -- that it was begun in the 1920s, that it was abandoned in the early '30s and the final chapters only written just before publication, that it was originally unconnected to the legendarium -- proved either flat wrong or at the very least extremely problematic in the light of close scrutiny. What of our other assumptions might need adjusting?

In the case of the Silmarillion, the obvious answer is that unlike THE HOBBIT or THE LORD OF THE RINGS JRRT never finished the stories of the First Age to his satisfaction, as Christopher Tolkien's outstanding and painstaking presentation of the unfinished texts of THE BOOK OF LOST TALES, the various Long Lays of Beleriand (most notably the Lay of Leithian), the 1937 Quenta Silmarillion, and the 1951 Later Silmarillion make clear (HME I-II, III, V, & X-XI). But the newly-released completed presentation of the Turin story, THE CHILDREN OF HURIN, makes clear that 'The Silmarillion' did not for Tolkien comprise the whole of the legendarium. Instead, Christopher argues that the 1926 Sketch of the Mythology, the 1930 Quenta, and the unfinished 1937 Quenta Silmarillion were all essentially 'summarising' works (CHILDREN OF HURIN p.274-275), drawn in brief from longer works telling specific parts of the story in much greater detail (and greater dramatic immediacy). In fact, if I understand him properly, Christopher suggests that his father's not having completed those longer works may in turn have prevented him from completing the synoptic Silmarillion that was to summarize them and place all the 'great tales' into proper context with each other.

If this is the case -- that is, if we think of 'the Silmarillion' as a synoptic work, rather than as the grand encompassing account of the First and Second Ages that so many of us who first read it in 1977 took it for -- then the case can be made that Tolkien did complete a publishable version of the book back in 1930 or very shortly thereafter (that is, during the same period when he was starting THE HOBBIT). For in THE SHAPING OF MIDDLE-EARTH (HME.IV), there are clear indications that he at that time thought of The Silmarillion as comprised of three component parts: the (Earliest) Annals of Valinor, the (Earliest) Annals of Beleriand, and the Quenta Noldorinwa (i.e., the 1930 Quenta) -- see HME.IV.284. Both annals, although later much revised, existed in complete draft form and the Quenta itself in a fairly polished typescript. And what's more, this form of the 'book' provided a firm basis of all his subsequent Middle-earth works, from THE HOBBIT on, with the possible exception of the Numenor material, which essentially represented a new element entering the legendarium from a different angle.

So there it is: Tolkien is often criticized for his failure to complete works, but I think it was more ambition and unrestrained creativity than uncertainty or procrastination that were responsible -- witness the ambitious expansion of the fairly compact 1930 Quenta into the much more expansive 1937 QS (which he was forced to abandon in order to concentrate on 'the New Hobbit', i.e. LotR), the decision to insert a half-dozen or more chapters into THE LOST ROAD, each of which would recap the main theme of the opening and closing chapters within a new setting (before he'd written the grand finale), &c. And we tend not to give him due credit for the major works he did complete.

So, perhaps it's better not to say Tolkien 'never completed The Silmarillion' and instead to say that, having completed it, he found himself periodically compelled to revisit and revise and greatly expand it, and that he never brought these revisions to final form.

Just a thought.



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